A Change of Pace – Chapter 41

“I’ll see you there,” the feel of Becca’s lips pressed against hers left a tingling sensation running through Anika’s body. She barely even registered her girlfriend leaving for her challenge match.

Anika let herself savor the moment; the touch, taste, smell and feel of Becca permeating her soul. She even allowed herself a peak into her girlfriend’s mind.

<You can do this!> Becca was psyching herself up, and going through her preplanned strategies.

<You can do this,> Anika thought to no one in particular. With a smile she sat back down and finished her breakfast.

As a personal rule, Anika had always kept her emotions bottled up inside, or refused to feel them altogether. It was a necessary survival instinct when someone went through what she did; especially at such a young age. If she kept her emotions in check then she would never be hurt like she was before. That had been her plan before she met Becca. Sure, Anika had girlfriends here and there in high school. Half of them were straight and just experimenting, and the other half were more interested in sex than a meaningful relationship; which worked well for the Super.

Becca wasn’t like that. The sex was fantastic, but Becca wasn’t just a fuckbuddy Anika had on lock down. The speedster was an honest to god romantic partner. Anika shared stuff with her she was sure would scare her away, but the blue-haired unending pit of energy only loved Anika more for it. Even though they’d only been together for a short while, Becca was well on her way to breaking down the walls Anika had built over the last ten years.

<Which is why I hope you haven’t stepped outside your weight class,> Anika felt the lovey-dovey emotions begin to evaporate as worry set in.

Anika finished the last few bites of her breakfast wrap while she thought about Emilia Scarborough. Anika wished she knew more about the girl, but she didn’t. Emilia kept her distance from Anika, and paid the higher ranked Super the respect she deserved as a superior competitor. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Emilia’s cryokinetic powers weren’t a good mix against Anika’s kinetic blasts or even her enhanced strength.

All Anika knew was that Emilia hung around with Lorelei Gilford, the number eleven ranked energy blaster who was durable enough to withstand the substantial kick that occurred when she fired the twin beams out of her eyes. If Emilia wasn’t with Lorelei then she was with Natalia Romanoff, the number twenty one ranked girl who could paralyze anyone she made eye contact with. Natalia’s power was good, but her proficiency with Sambo was what got her into the top half of the class. It was one thing to avoid looking at someone, but it was another thing entirely to avoid looking at someone when they were kicking the crap out of you.

Together, Anika liked to refer to Emilia, Lorelei, and Natalia as the stuck up bitches or SUBs if she was talking code with some of her other classmates. They were all rich, came from influential families, and didn’t let anyone forget it. They were all basically Seth before Liz mellowed him out; although Anika was positive Liz had her own ulterior motives.

Becca didn’t like Anika calling the three women SUBs; she saw it as degrading. Anika was trying to do better, but when Becca was about to try and beat one of those three women unconscious then they were SUBs again for the immediate future. Anika knew from firsthand experience that dehumanizing your enemy made it easier to do inhuman things to them.

A familiar wave of rage, depression, and anguish washed over Anika. She gripped the table tightly, cracking the wood with her strength as she fought off the episode. After a moment the emotions began to subside and her breathing returned to normal. Despite just sitting in place, it looked like Anika had just run five miles at her top speed, and then fought Coach Meyers. She wiped the sweat from her face and got to her feet to write an apology note about the table. Then she took out her phone and recorded the time, place, and what she was thinking about when she had the episode. It was a technique Dr. Johnson had her doing to identify a correlation between certain situations and her episodes. By identifying them she could either avoid them or work through those feelings and avoid any future episodes.

It had been weeks since Anika’s last episode, and she’d been foolish enough to think she’d gotten through her issues. <Stop thinking about that,> Anika chided herself as she finished the apology note. <Becca needs you at her match.> Anika placed the note on the cracked table, pushed her past into the back of her mind, and headed for the student center.

The only thing about Anika that stood out to normal people, beside her athletic feminine physique, was her tattoos; and since everyone and their mother had tattoos now-a-days, no one thought of them as Super-related. In fact, a lot of people came up to ask her who’d done them, and how much it would cost to get something similar. Anika always had to make up something because the truth was that she had no idea when or how she’d gotten the tattoos. They’d been a part of her as long as she could remember.

The only time Anika ever had to cover the intricate, feminine design up was when they started to softly glow. She’d been caught once or twice by a normal human, but had explained it as a trick of the light. That, a bit of flirting, and her number usually got them off her back. That had been an interesting conversation when Becca had caught her giving her number to a guy who looked like he played for the school’s football team.

Since it was so early Anika didn’t run into anyone, and due to the slight temperature shift, her arms were covered in a light sweater. After a few minutes waiting, and a lot longer walking, she arrived in the observation room.

Anika wasn’t the only one who’d come to watch the fight. “There’s the girlfriend,” Seth smirked. “You own me five bucks.” Anna Fletcher glowered at him before handing over the cash. Anika raised an eyebrow in her girlfriend’s roommate’s direction. “I bet her that you would show up for the match.”

“And I thought, that like any other normal creature on this planet, you would at least try to grab a few extra Z’s on a Friday morning,” Anna grumbled.

Anika wasn’t sure if she should appreciate Seth’s understand of her and Becca’s relationship, or if she should punch him in the gut for using that knowledge to his advantage. She never got to make a decision, as Coach McMillian’s voice boomed over the speakers. Anika particularly liked the part where he hummed the HBO hit show’s theme song for a good twenty seconds before going through the introductions.

“Kemps,” Anika jumped in surprise, and suppressed the reflex to take a swing at the woman standing directly beside her. “After Whitfield’s match is over see me in my office.”

“Yes, Coach Meyers,” there was something odd and stiff about the coach’s request, but Anika didn’t have time to think about it. The match was starting.

<Emotions can be a pain in the ass,> Anika though as a sympathetic pain ached in her heart.

Emotions were good, when everything was copacetic, but when you had to watch an SUB stick icicles through your girlfriends arms, then emotions weren’t the best thing to have. It hurt for Anika to watch helplessly as Emilia defeated Becca in just over three minutes.

“Looks like Becca bit off more than she could chew,” Anna sounded smug and dispassionate.

The electrokinetic and Anika were still on good terms after Anika’s earlier victory, but Anna could be temperamental and petty at times. “She miscalculated and overreached,” Anika didn’t like admitting it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t the truth. “There was also disinformation at play. Becca is an inherently good person, so she fell into that trap; but I guarantee it won’t happen again.”

There was nothing more terrifying than Becca not advancing to sophomore year. If Anika had to physically carry her across that metaphorical finish line then she would. Becca might even hate her for it, but Anika was not going to lose the best thing in her life.

The healers were scrambling into the room now; one even went down hard on the ice as he tried to get to Emilia first. Becca might have lost, but the cryokinetic was definitely feeling the pain from the speedster’s first flurry of punches. Anika wanted more than anything to be in the infirmary when Becca woke up, so she needed to hustle and get this meeting with Coach Meyers over.

“See you later today,” Anika waved goodbye to Seth and Anna as she sprinted from the observation room.

She followed the twists and turns of the underground HCP complex until she got to Professor Meyers’ office. She knocked, but no one answered. She knocked again, and still no answer.

“The fight’s already over?” Coach Meyers stepped out of the Dean’s office at the end of the hall with a disappointed look on her face. “I’m guessing Whitefield wasn’t quite ready after all,” the comment wasn’t mean, just a statement of fact. “Follow me.” Coach Meyers turned and reentered the Dean’s office, and Anika dutifully followed.

“Good morning, Ms. Kemps,” Coach Meyers wasn’t the only one in the office.

Anika knew the Dean and Coach Meyers, she’d briefly met Angela’s father, Hunter, but she had no idea who the man in the military uniform was. She knew enough to recognize the patches as ForceOps, and that realization sent her stomach plummeting into her lower intestine.

“It’s him isn’t it,” Anika blurted, freezing in the doorway.

“Please have a seat, Anika,” Dean Ditmar gestured to the only seat in the room. The rest of the Heroes and ForceOps officers were all standing; another bad sign.

Anika did as she was told, and fidgeted awkwardly in the momentary silence. “The short answer is yes,” Coach Meyers stated. “There has been some recent activity that has been linked to your father.”

“It is my belief,” Hunter stepped in, his massive rifle knocking against a bookshelf as he moved, “that the incident at Sprout was a snatch and grab organized by your father.” Anika’s tan skin must have gone ghostly white, because the Dean shot Coach Meyers and Hunter a stern look.

“Whether or not your father is looking for you is immaterial,” the Dean stated confidently. “You are a member of this HCP, and you will be protected with the full might of the DVA and Heroes under my authority.”

“ForceOps is committed to defending your rights as well,” the officer and Coach Meyers exchanged a glance that Anika didn’t understand. “You are now an American citizen, and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness just like everyone else.”

Anika couldn’t stop the tears of happiness. It wasn’t the corny speech the military officer gave, but the meaning behind his, Hunter, and the HCP staff’s presence. These people where here to protect her, and had already protected her, against her father. Because if there was one concrete thing in this universe it was that she would rather die a horrible death than return to that monster of a man.

“Everyone in this room, and all of their considerable resources, are committed to protecting you, Anika,” the Dean’s face was compassionate. “But that still doesn’t eliminate the danger, or our responsibilities to keep you safe.”

“Recently, someone tried to steal the U.S. Marshals Witness Protection Program database in an armored car robbery,” Hunter explained. Anika’s mind immediately went to her foster parents, but Hunter was ready for that. “Your foster family has been moved to a new location, and we’re hoping other leads will help lead us closer to the people helping your father.”

Anika was relieved to hear that her adoptive family was safe, but that didn’t alleviate all her fear.

“Take this,” the Dean handed over what looked like a remote control car starter. “That is a panic button,” the Dean explained. “If you are in trouble press and hold the button. Do it now.” Anika did as she was instructed.

After a few seconds there was a loud pop and a short, stocky man was standing next to Anika. He was dressed in athletic shorts and a t-shirt, but Anika could tell from the way he stood and his demeanor that he was ForceOps. She’d met enough of the Super soldiers before to know the type.

“This is Corporal Fuentes,” the corporal braced to attention when the office spoke. “He is a ForceOps teleporter. Unlike most teleporters he doesn’t need to have been to a place to teleport to it. Instead his power relies on beacons. That button is a beacon that the corporal’s power is sensitive to. If at any time you feel you are in danger, press the button and Corporal Fuentes will extract you.

“What if I’m in the middle of a fight?” if Anika ever needed to use the panic button then shit had probably already hit the fan.

“The corporal is a trained soldier, and knows how to defend himself,” the officer answered confidently.

“Additionally, the beacon sends a notification of your location to the HCP staff. Coach McMillian can be there not long after you press the button, and depending on the distance, other staff members will be able to take immediate action as well,” this time a look was shared between the Dean and Coach Meyers.

“We know this is a lot to take,” the alternative instructor comforted. “But we are trusting you to be responsible with this button, and to not tell your classmates.”

“Why?” the last part caught Anika by surprise.

“These are precautionary measures we are taking,” the Dean stated, although Anika got the feeling he wasn’t completely convinced. “We want the students to remain focused on their studies and not in fear of something that may or may not happen.”

“Don’t they have the right to know?” Anika posed the counterargument.

“If the likelihood of an imminent attack is verified then the entire HCP and West Private University will be notified, but until then we don’t want to cause a panic,” Hunter stated. “Threats to the HCP have increased recently. Heroes take those threats seriously, but if we made public every single threat the HCPs have received then no one would be attending Lander, Korman, Sizemore, Overton, or West Private.” The way Hunter said it made Anika realize that this might just be something that happened more frequently than anyone realized.

“Don’t worry,” the Dean smiled at her. “We have the resources in place to handle anything that might happen. This is just a precaution,” he emphasized the final words again.

“So…what do I do now?” Anika asked after no one spoke up after the Dean.

“I believe you have classes and then gym in the afternoon,” Coach Meyers replied, like they just moved on from talking about the weather.

“Just like that,” Anika couldn’t stop the comment from escaping her lips.

“Yep, just like that,” Coach Meyers didn’t miss a beat.

“Um…ok,” Anika slowly got to her feet, and walked toward the door when no one tried to stop her.

She left the Dean’s office with the panic button in her pocket and a lot of questions on her mind. She was still certain of one thing though; she needed to be by Becca’s side when she woke up. And if her father ever did come to Orlando, and she needed to use that button, she needed to think of a way to take Becca with her. Because there was no way she was going to submit the women she loved to the hell that her father would rain down on her.

 

***

 

The empty street was nothing fancy. It was part of a warehouse section of Chicago that was undergoing an evolution; or at least that’s what the mayor’s office was calling it. Really it was more of a hipster crowd moving into a new location and making it their own. The warehouses were staying because it would be too expensive to tear the small sea of buildings down. Instead, the insides were being gutted and turned into apartments, shops, and eateries. Once it was all said and done it might actually be a nice place to live.

The first thing Lilly heard as she appeared in a blast of darkness was the sound of bulldozers grating against concrete and cranes whining as they rotated on overused axels. In the distance she could see the dust getting kicked up by the machines. She’d appeared at the far end of the industrial section. The construction crews wouldn’t get to this area for at least another year.

That’s why Mika had purchased one of these warehouses. Until the expansion project caught up to their location it was a great place to conduct legally questionable operations. Once the evolution reached the warehouse, he’d either sell it for a profit, or convert it into something that was needed, and have a constant revenue stream.

<The kid’s balls might have just dropped, but he knows a business opportunity when he sees one,> which was the entire reason Lilly was here.

Mika had arranged for the buyer to meet them in his warehouse. The plan was to sell the precious stones from the armored truck robbery for a quarter of a million dollars. It wasn’t as good as Lilly’s last deal, but it was more than they estimated at the beginning of their heist, and a quarter of a million dollars was still a quarter of a million dollars. Lilly already had plans for the money.

Despite Thanksgiving approaching in the Windy City, it was unseasonably warm out. It was nothing compared to Orlando, but Lilly still needed to dress for the occasion. She was wearing a lot of the same outfit as she had during the robbery, but adjusted for the climate change. She had on her black hooded cloak, scarf, wickedly grinning volto mask, and a black t-shirt with a bullet proof vest over it. Instead of the pants and tech genius Kevlar pads to protect her vital areas, she was wearing short shorts; with a pistol holstered to her bare, tan thigh, another in the small of her back, an assortment of knives in and out of sight, and a single baton. She was reasonably protected and comfortable, while still being recognizable as Wraith. She had more meetings to get to today, and she couldn’t show up smelling like BO.

As Lilly had expected, she was a bigger name in the criminal underworld now. While Daddy still worried about her, especially after having to call for the healer, she could still see the pride on his face. The press conference in Nevada had left out certain parts of the story; like how she’d fought off and survived two Heroes. But it did get the part right about how a new supervillain named Wraith was on the run, and had stolen over half a million in valuables. They also linked Lilly to the robbery back in Atlanta, and a half dozen other minor crimes she’d perpetrated for shits and giggles around the country. Now they had their “best people” working on it.

<They said the same thing about Daddy, and look where that’s got them,> the thought calmed her nerves and let he focus on the present.

She rounded the corner and saw the buyer had already arrived. Lilly slid a knife down into her palm, just in case, and teleported the rest of the way.

“Holy…” the buyer jumped slightly as Lilly appeared beside Mika, and darkness washed over everyone.

“You’re late, Wraith,” Mika, dressed in his Nano outfit gave her a frown.

The bottom half of his face was bare, so Lilly could clearly see his annoyance; but the top half was covered in a mask that looked like a circuit board. It even seemed to light up randomly as electricity flowed along the circuits. His whole outfit was like that. The clothes were tight, but not too tight, and had the same circuit-like design. Over it, Mika had clear, transparent armor, which highlighted the electricity dancing along the circuitry. He looked like a man-shaped computer, and Lilly had a hunch that the costume wasn’t entirely for show.

<Totally badass,> Lilly needed to tell him just how awesome that costume was.

Instead she countered Mika’s annoyed hello, “No, you’re both just early,” Lilly actually smirked when the buyer looked down at his watch in confusion.

<Amateur.>

After a brief conversation between Nano and the buyer, Lilly learned the man wasn’t an amateur at all. He just wasn’t a criminal. The news conference had stated that three hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds had been stolen from the transport, but it never said who they belonged to. Since Mika knew who owned the precious stones, he’d called up the company and agreed to return the diamonds for a quarter of a million dollars. This way the company saved face and still made a fifty thousand dollar profit on their merchandise; while Lilly and Mika got rich. Everyone won… sort of.

“Then we have a deal,” the man held out a large briefcase and gave a fake smile. Lilly was surprised the case didn’t slip out of the man’s hand; he was sweating like a pig.

Since pigs crossed her mind, Lilly kept her eyes on the surrounding area. She checked corners, looking for the shadows of a SWAT team stacked up against a wall, and she looked in windows for any snipers. As far as she could tell there was nothing. You couldn’t trust another criminal to keep their word, but you could trust a scared diamond broker who just wanted to put this whole situation behind him.

Lilly turned her attention back to the buyer’s two bodyguards. They were both big, burly, and dressed in matching black suits with twin bulges where their sidearms were. Both men’s eyes were on Lilly, and the pistol strapped to her leg. Their expression was neutral because that’s what they were paid to be, but she didn’t think for a second they were happy about what they were engaged in.

Mika took the large case from the man and set it down on the hood of the expensive car they were standing next to. He opened it, looked over the bills with his eyes, and the pulled a device from one of his pockets. Both guards tensed at the sight of the device, but Mika ignored them, and swept it over the orderly pile of cash.

“No dye packets, tracking devices, and it’s exactly a quarter million,” Mika nodded with satisfaction as he pocketed the device.

The technopath reached into another pocket and withdrew a familiar velvet sack. The buyer snatched the bag like a hungry toddler, removed an intense-looking jeweler’s loupe from his pocket, and began examining the stones. He pulled half a dozen at random, and compared them to something written on a sheet of paper. It took a good twenty minutes, but finally he was satisfied.

“Thank you for your time, Sir,” Mika grabbed the briefcase and nearly fell over from the weight. Mika’s skillset was brains not brawn.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Lilly grabbed Mika’s shoulder and they both disappeared in an explosion of darkness.

Less than a second later they were back in Mika’s new swanky office.

“That was awesome,” the cool demeanor Mika had been displaying was replaced by the excitement of the kid he was. “We did it, we actually did it. Look at all this cash!” Lilly thought he was going to throw one of the ten thousand dollar stacks into the air in celebration.

“Let’s take it down an octave or three, big guy,” Lilly put a hand on his shoulder as she stepped up to look at the cash. “We need to get this divided, so we can get on with our day; eighty twenty split remember?”

“Yeah…about that,” Mika looked like he’d been caught red handed with his hand in the cookie jar. Now it was Lilly’s turn to tense up. She gripped the handle of the knife she was palming before Mika started to explain himself. “Look, Wraith, I need more of the cash. I got a few things going, including that warehouse renovation I told you about. I just need more startup capital, and this is all I’ve got now.”

“What about your cut of the cash?” Lilly asked. Mika had made sixty grand off the first part of the job.

“It’s already been used to pay bills, rent, or invested,” Mika’s face wasn’t well-suited for lying, so Lilly believed him.

She relaxed a little, and thought it over now that she wasn’t too worried about getting stabbed in the back. Mika was still a friend after all, and this could still work out for the both of them.

“Let’s make a deal,” Lilly finally settled on a plan. “I only need a hundred grand today for some of my own business ventures. That’s only forty percent. I’m willing to loan you the other forty percent.”

“What are your terms?” Mika leaned in, a look of excitement on his face.

“I’m going to charge you interest,” the technopath’s face fell a little. “Because nothing in this life is free,” Lilly continued. “But since we’re friends and partners I’m only going to charge you two percent…quarterly.”

No bank in the world would charge two percent monthly interest on anything. Not even if you had a spotless credit history. Lilly knew this, and Mika knew this; so two percent quarterly interest was a clear indication of their relationship.

“Two grand every three months; I can do that,” Mika was smiling again. “I should be able to pay you back within the year, two at the latest.”

It was a win-win all around. Mika got his hundred grand start-up capital, a better deal than he would get anywhere else, and a clear sense of how Lilly felt about their business relationship. Lilly got Mika back in her pocket, and stood to make eight to sixteen grand on the deal, depending on when he paid off the loan. It was the best way Lilly could have played it.

They shook on it, and Mika started to count and divide the money. Ten minutes later Lilly was shoving her hundred grand into a stylish black gym bag that matched her outfit, and Mika was practically drooling over the hundred and fifty grand sitting in front of him.

“It’s been fun, Nano,” Lilly used the codename to heighten Mika’s already euphoric mood. “I need to go dark until after the holidays. Let the heat die down a bit, and call me after new year’s with a new master plan.”

“I’m not going to see you until after the holidays,” the sadness was evident in the young Super’s voice.

“Don’t worry,” Lilly winked at him through her mask. “You’re definitely on the naughty list, so I’ll get you a special gift.” Lilly saw Mika’s pimply face turn bright red as she teleported away.

<One down, one to go,> Lilly only had a moment to take a deep breath before she reappeared in the Florida sunlight.

Her blast of darkness quickly dissolved on top of the sun stricken parking garage. The structure was dilapidated and empty; exactly how Lilly wanted it. She’d chosen the place for the meeting, and she didn’t need it to be anywhere close to the school.

Seth was going to be late tonight, more HCP stuff he didn’t talk about directly; but Lilly had picked up enough to know that he was fighting someone. She’d fought a lot in her own training, so it only made sense that aspiring Heroes did the same. Just the thought of Seth throwing down with some other wannabe Hero got her all hot and bothered. She’d seen her man in action more than once, and he didn’t disappoint. She had no doubt her beau would win. He was strong, smart, courageous, and had a versatile power set. It hadn’t taken long from him to tell her that he was a broad spectrum elemental manipulator. That was rare, and incredibly hot.

<Focus,> Lilly dragged her mind out of the gutter she would be digging around in for her evening activities, and concentrated on the meeting.

This was a critical part of her mission, and part of the deal her father had struck with his client. A client he constantly reminded Lilly they did not want to piss off. Today needed to go off without a hitch, but there were several ways she could accomplish that.

Her boot heels clicked against the concrete garage floor as she made her way down into the darkness. Obviously, they weren’t going to meet at the top where someone could see them, or even at street level where someone could accidentally drive in and disrupt the negotiations. They were meeting deep in the bowels of the structure. As far away from anyone else they could possibly get.

Lilly was alone with the clicking sound of her footwear for a few minutes. Light filtered in here and there, but the gloom it cast was shallow at best. Due to the nature of her power, Lilly wasn’t scared of the dark. She thrived in it, she even preferred it; usually with company. Lilly couldn’t stop the smile as she rounded the corner.

About a hundred feet away stood two men on either side of the ramp that descended to the final level. Both were big, bulky, and reminded Lilly of the two bodyguards at the diamond exchange. Unlike those two, these two weren’t professionally dressed. Both were wearing jeans that sagged to low, one had a stylishly cut up shirt, while the other had on a wife beater. The one with the wife beater had on a baseball hat with a straight rim that was turned slightly to the side; while the one with the torn shirt was wearing his backwards.

Both were too occupied talking to each other that they didn’t realize Lilly until she was about thirty feet away. Finally, the sound of her heels was loud enough to catch their attention.

“You can’t come down here, baby,” the first man’s words were feinted kindness as his eyes wandered over her body.

“Typical,” Lilly rolled her eyes behind her mask, and kept striding confidently forward. “Sending little boys to do a man’s job.”

“I’m warnin’ you,” the other man threatened, a puff of smoke escaping his mouth as he talked.

“I’ll cut you up, bitch,” the two threw more insults at her, until she vanished.

“What the…” the one who warned her didn’t have time to finish his sentence.

Lilly reappeared right between the two men, drowning them in darkness. Her leg struck out, catching one of the men in the side of the knee. He roared, a five foot column of flame shooting out of his mouth as he went down. The other man was turning towards the source of the light just as Lilly spun towards him. Her hand found the baton on her hip mid-spin, and was only half extended when it caught the man in the chin at an upward angle.

The cracking of bone sent a chill of satisfaction through Lilly. She continued the spin, and finished off her display of violence by bringing her weapon down on the back of the head of the fire-breathing man who was struggling to get back to his feet. He went limp instantly. Both were down, but alive; although if they didn’t get a healer in the next hour they wouldn’t stay that way.

<Pathetic,> Lilly didn’t bother to look back as she adjusted the bag on her shoulder, and continued down the sloping roadway into the lowest level of the garage.

Here, the darkness was eradicated by dozens of lights spread into a giant circle. There were at least a dozen people inside the circle of light, including a glowing woman, who brightened up the space even more. Lilly stayed in the shadows until they noticed her, and resolved to be more diplomatic this time around.

“You her, you the one who called?” a man stepped forward from the dozen people in the circle of lights. He seemed to be the leader. “Where are Dragon and Fuse?”

“Oh…you mean bum knee and cracked jaw,” Lilly replied after a moment. “They were incredibly disrespectful when we started chatting upstairs, so they must regrettably inform you that they are unable to attend.” Lilly sounded diplomatic enough in her own mind.

“Let’s kill her, Squid,” a chorus rose up from the group. “She’s disrespectin’ us, let me squash her,” Lilly let them argue among themselves for a moment, before pulling a bundle from her pocket and tossing it into the light.

Three quarters of the group scattered, giving Lilly a good tally of who was and wasn’t physically enhanced. The more information you had going into a fight the better, and that was even truer for potential allies.

<The enemy of my enemy…keep your friends close but your enemies closer…blah blah blah,> Lilly never liked her father’s lectures, but she could see now why they were so important.

“Don’t piss yourselves,” Lilly tried her best to sound neutral, but probably came off a little admonishing. “It’s only money. A thousand bucks to hear me out.”

The leader, Squid, who hadn’t scrambled away like a cockroach, walked forward and picked up the bound stack of twenties. Throwing ten hundred dollar bills would have been just as easy, but it looked way better throwing a wad of fifty bills.

“You’ve got my attention,” Squid quickly counted the money, and gestured for Lilly to come closer. She obliged, but just to the boarder of the light. “What you want?”

Squid, and the assortment of goons behind him, were a Super gang that ran a large chunk of criminal territory in Orlando. Unlike some human gangs, they weren’t divided by ethnicity, race, or creed. The called themselves the Fist, because they were primarily known for their enforcer skills. Lilly knew from her research that they did a lot more than that; illegal gambling, prostitution, human trafficking, bribery, selling drugs, and the occasional murder could all be linked back to them.

Like most Super gangs in the country they weren’t all made of Supers. There just weren’t enough super powered people to make up the ranks a gang needed to be effective; so Super gangs tended to evolve into a feudal hierarchy. The Boss, Captain, King, Emperor, or whatever title the guy at the top held was always the most powerful Super. They needed to be in order to maintain the position. Less powerful, but still dangerous Supers usually held lieutenant positions beneath the Boss. Each lieutenant might have a few Supers under them, but most of their frontline troops were probably human; unless the gang was one of the big ones. Big Super gangs had many hierarchical levels, and even specialty positions and career paths for specific types of Supers. The most successful gangs could be quite creative with their internal structures.

The Fist wasn’t big, which was good. They were big enough to have a rep, and to meet their intimidation purposes, but they weren’t big enough to draw the attention of the Feds or Heroes; especially in a relatively quiet town like Orlando.

The dozen or so Supers in the room probably represented the entire variant population of the gang. It was nice that they wanted to show up in strength, but it was strategically stupid. A raid now, or a determined rival might take them all out. Lilly just hoped that they lasted long enough to meet their side of the deal.

“I want to put you on retainer,” it was clear from some of their reactions that they didn’t know what Lilly meant. “I will pay you ten thousand dollars a month for ten months to be on call to commit some crime at a designated place and time.”

“Ten G’s,” she could tell a few people were impressed now that they understood. The Fist was a successful gang in Orlando, but their cash flow still wasn’t huge. An extra ten thousand a month could go a long way for them.

“We ain’t gonna get pinched for you,” Squid replied defiantly, although Lilly could tell he was considering the deal.

Lilly knew he had to act tough, and be the alpha male in front of his people. That was how gang culture worked. If he was perceived as weak then one of the lieutenants would challenge him, or straight up kill him in his sleep. Lilly didn’t really care what the Fist’s internal politics were; she just needed them on board for her future plans.

“You won’t be asked to do anything more heinous than what you already do on a daily basis. For example, I might ask you to start a fire, or shoot up a grocery store. You should have plenty of time to escape before the authorities arrived, and it serves as a suitable distraction from my true aims.”

“You don’t get to operate in my town without paying your dues,” Lilly knew this was going to happen, but it still didn’t make her happy.

Squid was going to get greedy, and she might have to put him down in the future. A more obedient leader would work better down the line, but Squid would do for now.

“Any other venture I conduct will be run by you first, and an acceptable fee negotiated. Right now, I just want you on retainer, and your word that you’ll live up to your end of the bargain.”

Gang culture might be nothing more than a bunch or gorillas beating their chests in plays for dominance, but there was a weird honor code to it. If the man’s word was worthless then so was the man. Squid wasn’t going to tarnish his, or his gang’s, name like that.

“You got a deal,” Squid nodded.

No one saw Lilly’s smile, but they did catch the rest of the money flying out of the darkness toward Squid. “That’s the rest of the ten grand. Payment will be made on the first of the month at this same location. No need to bring all your muscle to every meeting. I’ve already got your number, and I’ll contact you if I require your services.”

Lilly started to back away but stopped. “And it goes without saying that if you renege on our deal that I will kill you, your whole gang, and burn to the ground everything you’ve built in this life.” All diplomacy was gone from her tone.

“I’d like to see you try,” the comment, by one of the other Supers, was probably meant to be said in a whisper; but the adrenaline pumping got the best of the man. So did the knife that cut through the air, and pinned his hand to the wall in a spray of blood.

To the Super’s credit he didn’t scream, but his wheezing growl was just as bad. Squid didn’t even flinch at his subordinate’s stupidity, in the gang leader’s eyes the guy deserved it.

“What do we call you? Girl in the dark doesn’t seem like a good name to put down as an employer on our taxes,” despite herself, Lilly laughed at the joke.

“Just call me, Shadow,” there was nothing more she would have liked than to stamp the Wraith name on this little arrangement, but she couldn’t afford anyone to draw any connections.

All it would take was one of these idiots getting picked up on a minor charge, making a deal, and spilling their guts to the Heroes. They already knew that her father had been involved in the incident at Sprout; something that sharply deviated from his MO. If they got wind of another criminal Super with a similar power operating in the area they’d be able to connect the dots. Heroes were a pain in the ass but they weren’t stupid.

“And I would get bum knee and cracked jaw to a healer soon, just some friendly advice,” Lilly left them on that note, disappearing in an avalanche of shadow.

<Now I need to get back to school and figure out how to make my own personal Hero do dirty things to me,> the imagery was more than enough for her to get through her next few hours of classes. <Villainy by morning, college class in the afternoon, and Seth by night,> she smiled. <I’ve got one hell of a life,> and she wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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